Déja Vu and The End of History – Paolo Virno


Why did I read this? 

K recently emailed some thoughts on déja vu, introducing an interesting concept of reincarnation that seemed similar (on the suggestion of another friend) to the notion of time’s non-linear passage in Arrival. I won’t reiterate his thoughts here, but I will say that while I myself do not believe in reincarnation, K’s email did encourage me to think more deeply about an otherwise ordinary, un-interesting (in the way an eye-twitch or little itch on the knee is un-interesting) rarity of experience. I was also aware of Paulo Virno’s philosophical study on the topic, so I went ahead and jumped in, hoping that I could bring more to the table in the discussion K raised.

I didn’t realize the depths of the water here…


Before reading this short but difficult study, it’s helpful to remember that it originally appeared in Italian in the late 90s. Verso released the English translation about 15 years later, somewhat removed from its original historical and philosophical context, a period in which Francis Fukayama’s “end of history” thesis became an ideological foundation (read: neoconservative dog whistle) for imperialism’s “victory,” led by the United States, over the Soviet Union. So the illusion goes: bourgeois democracy had at last triumphed over communismbringing to realization the “best,” and final manifestation, of all historical actualities.

Not only is America winning, Fukuyama claimed, but the flourishing of democracy around the world is the fulfillment of a grand historical scheme. The end of the cold war and the disarray of the Soviet Union reflected a larger process -the realization of the Idea. History, Hegel believed (or Fukuyama says he believed), ”culminated in an absolute moment – a moment in which a final, rational form of society and state became victorious.” And that moment, it just so happens, is now. (New York Times, 1989)

While I’m convinced of the ideological purpose of Fukuyama’s argument (he was, after all, a State Department official during the Cold War), Virno’s is a much more charitable response, diagnosing a philosophical disease of which “end of history” thinking is a symptom.

In the quote above, Hegel is cited as a launching point for Fukuyama’s thesis, and while Virno wouldn’t disagree, Déja Vu details the picture more accurately, tracing this problematic (or diseased, as I’ve described it) history of philosophy backwards to Kojève, Hegel and, what may be the most challenging but rewarding section of the book, Aristotle. That is, the ideological outcome of the long-dominant and unchallenged Aristotelian relationship between potentiality and actuality may, it turns out, be a collective – and collectively mistaken – acceptance that history could ever reach a teleological end:

Virno’s analysis would appear to imply there no [sic] final telos or structural totality can be permitted if the world is one of endless potentialities – for historical time could not really exist if this were the case. Virno’s offensive offers us then to enter a philosophical battle over time whilst the political consequences of such a battle appear unclear, and for all we know, the price of endless possibilities may turn out to be no future at all. (Marx and Philosophy, 2016)

Rory Jeff’s conclusion above (“no future at all”) is one spin on Virno’s polemics against the “end of history,” though Virno himself would, I believe, take issue with it as the pessimistic interpretation. A more hopeful reading would be the one that replaces telos – a finality of human potentiality – and replaces it with something closer to Marx: Historical Man  – the subject of a truly human history that does not depend on the unfolding of events as if guided by the hand of a divine power (or “culmination of the Absolute”), but that guides history in her own direction, fully conscious of her unlimited potential and unhindered by “antagonistic forms” of bourgeois society that appears “natural” (and “final,” as Fukuyama might have it):

The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production — antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from the social conditions of life of the individual; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism. This social formation brings, therefore, the prehistory of human society to a close. (quoted in Fromm, 1961)

If there’s any doubt that Virno is onto something here, just open a newspaper. That so-called “triumph” of the West has proven false, with the promise of democracy leading to the resurrection of all varieties of reaction: nationalism, fascism, neocolonialism and the hollowing out of basic social / public services across the map. In other words, our well-known global and domestic instabilities defy the political premises on which someone could (disingenuously) declare a “flourishing of democracy.”

In that sense, it may seem a little odd that Verso would reintroduce the work to a larger audience now, when anyone with a basic grip on geopolitical realities could hardly accept the stalling of history. It would be a mistake, however, to limit Virno’s critique to what any and all refutations of the “end of history” have in common: namely, that on a basic empirical level, history is still moving. There are political, social, cultural (i.e., historical) battles yet to be won or lost. Instead, Virno goes beyond this ideological point, investigating the very structure of our understanding of time (see Chapter 2: “The Memory of the Present”) to reveal how “end of history” thinking could arise in the first place.

In other words, the relevance of Virno’s arguments does not have to be limited to refutation of State Department ideologues or Trumpian appeals to the “former greatness” of America. It can, I think, be applied to apocalyptic visions of our future (a la Wahhabism) or crude materialist “Marxist” predictions of the culmination of history in socialism, even something as simple as the Social Media Addict and every-attached-to-his-phone millennial. Virno, in other words, is revealing this structure of experience as a means of protecting us from its philosophical harms in the future. Using Henri Bergson as an intellectual foundation, this is  what he calls déja vu: 

“‘We feel that we choose and will, but that we are choosing what is imposed on us and willing the inevitable.’ The state of mind correlated to deja vu is that typical of those set on watching themselves live.” (Virno, 2015)

You may have noticed that I’ve left out egregiously huge details on how these arguments work:

  • What is the Aristotelian connection between potentiality and actuality? And how does that form the basis of our notion of history?
  • What does it mean for déja vu to be a collective, public experience and not, as we commonly hold it to be, a very personal one?
  • Perhaps most egregious in its absence: is there not a way to reclaim deja vu as a liberating capacity, one that fixes us not in our past, but shows us the future?

As I said from the start, I didn’t know what depths I was jumping into here. What I set out to do was show the general outline and purpose of Virno’s work, in order to make it a little more understandable if the reader decides to jump in herself. That said, the questions above could be your life raft. Hold on tight.

This leaves one last question for the review: should she jump in? Was it worth the time? For those interested in Critical Theory (and not uncomfortable with the stubbornly academic language of such work), Aristotle’s Metaphysics or the Philosophy of History broadly speaking, then yes – give it a go. Otherwise, I wouldn’t say the book is the most memorable philosophical text I’ve read, despite memory being its central subject.



Paul Mason and postcapitalism: utopian or scientific?

Excellent takedown of Paul Mason’s much discussed piece on “post-capitalism” for The Guardian:

“If Mason is telling us that the development of the productive forces have now created the pre-conditions for a society of abundance and an end of class exploitation, then that is right but it is nothing new. It what Marx said 160 years ago.”

Michael Roberts Blog

Leftist journalist and broadcaster, Paul Mason, has a new book out at the end of this month. It’s called ‘Postcapitalism’.  I don’t have a copy but Mason has written a long article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, outlining his main arguments, http://gu.com/p/4ay9c

Mason has been a doughty publiciser of labour struggles in his journalism and also offered on occasions a more theoretical and strategic analysis of where capitalism and labour is going.  I think this book is an attempt to sum up his views.  As Mason has some influence among labour activists in Britain and internationally, it’s worth considering what he has to say.

Mason argues that capitalism is set to be replaced by ‘postcapitalism’ (not ‘socialism’, it seems). And this is for three reasons. First, there is an information revolution which is creating a society of abundance in information, making a virtually costless and labour saving economy. Second…

View original post 2,584 more words

On a Certain (Anguished?) “Public Intellectual”

Late October, 1945 – Jean Paul Sartre clears his way to the stage with an axe, reaching his lectern to deliver what would become the first appearance of the so-called Public Intellectual. His defense of Existentialism that evening, ironically self-described as an argument “for philosophers and specialists,” now exists in print as perhaps the most accessible introduction to a modern philosophical worldview by a founding participant and theorist.

Whatever critical garbage was thrown at Sartre (and there was a lot, from every direction), all in attendance could agree that something strange had transpired post-delivery: the discussion surrounding the event was not simply an “inside matter.” Professional intellectuals had their share to say, sure, but the average Parisian had jumped into the discussion, opening a public arena for serious philosophical debate. It signaled the birth of a new intellectual phenomenon, one that may, without condescension, be difficult for most Americans to understand or picture. I mean, when’s the last time you saw serious media coverage of a philosopher appear before an enthusiastic crowd of…. ok, well there’s that. But you know – it’s a strange bird, and “major” is used loosely here. I wouldn’t bet that the correct pronunciation of “Zizek” is recognized by even, say… half a percentage of the American population (with a large intersection among 20-something bearded white dudes who roast their own coffee).

With the possible exception of Noam Chomsky and, to a lesser extent, the late Howard Zinn, Americans have never had a widely known left-leaning intellectual personality (not that I would ascribe as much to Noam, after whom an experimental linguistic lab chimp was named). Ask high school students today if they’re familiar, let alone have read, anything by Z Magazine‘s poster boy and it’s blanks around the room. Not so among the French: “Philosopher” is understood as a civic occupation where someone like Henri-Bernard Levy can play something like a consultative role to the executive of French imperialism. As for cultural impact among youth, I imagine Foucault and Serge Gainsbourg have about the same recognition, which says a lot against possible comparisons in the US (uh… Zinn and Naked Raygun maybe?).

Ok-The-Public-Intellectual-So-What? That’s not why I re-read “Existentialism is a Humanism” after collecting 10 years worth of dust, a self-published pamphlet run by my buddy Jake well before Yale’s fancy print (we could only get it on Marxists.org). After all, I don’t seriously believe that its appearance created the historical possibility of the Public Intellectual, but it’s worth exploring whether its content and tenets created a theme in philosophical thought that could organically grow into a socially popular worldview (which, I believe, it may become once again in this country).

So let’s go back to October 29, 1945. Waddling up to the stage, Mr. Sartre begins rattling off a series of slogan-like punchlines that would become convenient points of possession for opponents and adherents alike:

Existence precedes Essence! 

Without God, everything is Possible!

Man simply is!

Something something something a soldier and his mother!

The Christians would say, “oh, this twat! He believes in nothing!” Devout mothers and fathers shivering scared that Simone and Mr. Sartre would seduce their virginal daughters into a much more pleasurable interpersonal experience than the Confessional. Members of the French Communist (so-called) Party went into a tizzy – “but it’s anti-materialist! You deny solidarity!” That night they would scratch holes into their heads figuring out what differences comrade Stalin’s notion of “freedom” would have with the strange little lazy-eyed man’s. Then there were the people who immediately became enamored with the arguments, sucking in comforting hot air of deliverance from ideologies, dogma and the moral uncertainties of preceding years. Human freedom seemed imminent.

I’m interpreting a bit, but after Sartre went through his basic defenses, addressing the Communist and Christian differences as the “atheist representative” of contemporary Existentialism, the rest of the lecture goes something like this:

La guerre est finie.

It’s your life to live.

You’re responsible now.

Doesn’t that feel nice?

Well it shouldn’t, you wretched little lying fuck! You’re supposed to be sitting in a corner with your head on your knees, anguished nearly to death that your life could’ve gone in any 8 billion directions but you chose to become a goddamn street sweeper. Anybody can become anything! Don’t you understand that – the human is universal!

Right right right right right right! Critics have identified Sartre’s attempt here to shoulder up a little to the Communists in the room. I can see how someone might argue that – and I wouldn’t deny it, given what I know about Sartre’s political history. But even among Stalinists, his examples, which dealt with the future of the Russian Revolution (Sartre was not, it’s important to note, unequivocally committed to its defense) or of trade unionists having to choose between Christian organizations over the PCF (but he didn’t advise which side to take!) seemed rather right wing. And despite all the “it’s not bourgeois, I swear” defensiveness – thou doth protest too much, Mr. Sartre – the delivery essentially came across as a series of empty tautologies for a mainly middle class audience with a little too much time to contemplate liberation than actually fight for concrete demands on the street. Not a good look to a youthful Communist crowd that had just suffered the depredations of an inter-Imperialist war.

Lots of talk, Mr. Sartre, but I’m afraid your philosophy will have its proper historical place in films about privileged European art crit… Oh, wait! That’s my previous post…

Experiments in the Revival of Organisms (1940)

Arterial pumps, artificial heads, dramatic fade edits – the body is a machine, and Soviet filmmakers, part of an art culture that mastered the popular and social uses of images, employ their cameras to document as much in the laboratory.

There’s a fine line here between documentary and science fiction, at best a propaganda piece placing the Soviet Union at the forefront of conducting what we might call “life extension” experiments. Canines, among the first space adventurers, star here as the agents for the next frontier of science. Did they go very far? Were the experiments actually “successful”? Who cares! The bizarro medico-cinema vibes are strong. Part I below:

“This disturbing film records the successful experiments in the resuscitation of life to dead animals (dogs), as conducted by Dr. S.S. Bryukhonenko at the Institute of Experimental Physiology and Therapy, Voronezh, U.S.S.R. Director: D.I. Yashin. Camera: E.V. Kashina. Narrator: Professor Walter B. Cannon. Introduced by Professor J.B.S. Haldane.”